NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (AP) — A border city mayor, a state official and four other people died Wednesday when an airplane crashed as they inspected widespread flooding that has forced tens of thousands of evacuations near the Mexico-U.S. border.
The small plane carrying Piedras Negras Mayor Jose Manuel Maldonado was flying over a rain-swollen reservoir about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Eagle Pass, Texas, when it went down, said Ricardo Castillo, a spokesman for the border state of Coahuila.
State spokeswoman Irma Flores said there were no survivors. She said the dead included state Public Works Director Horacio Del Bosque, the pilot and three other people. The cause of the crash was still under investigation.
The officials were surveying the condition of reservoirs along the U.S.-Mexico border, which have reached their highest levels in decades following days of drenching rain. That has forced officials to dump water into flooded rivers, with yet another storm on the way.
The dramatic rise of the Rio Grande caused by Hurricane Alex and continuing rains forced the closure of at least one major border crossing between downtown Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Officials evacuated the flood-threatened Vega Verde subdivision in Del Rio, Texas, some 110 miles (180 kilometers) upstream from Laredo, while high waters in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila have already damaged some 10,000 homes — many swamped in waist-deep water.
“That means there are 40,000 people who don’t have any place to sleep,” Gov. Humberto Moreira told the Televisa network on Wednesday.
To the southeast, Mexican officials evacuated nearly 18,000 people from houses in Ciudad Anahuac for fear that water would overflow the Venustiano Carranza dam and threaten lives. Mexico’s National Water Commission said the dam currently had the largest emergency water release in the country.
Ciudad Anahuac Mayor Santos Garza Garcia said at least 1,500 homes already had been flooded in the town of Rodriguez, across the Salado River from his city.
Water behind the binational Amistad Dam on the Rio Grande was at its highest level since 1974, according to the International Boundary and Water Commission, forcing officials to release water from it at the fastest rate in a quarter century.
The Commission said the downstream Falcon dam would probably reach capacity within the next few days, suggesting future releases there will raise water levels along the river’s lower reaches.
Much of that downstream area is protected against flooding by levees, but Mexico’s National Water Commission said it was worried about low-lying settlements, most built by poor people without official permission.
“One of country’s most serious problems are irregular settlements on federal land and in flood-prone areas,” it said.
Authorities walked a painful, delicate line — forced to release reservoir waters they know will add to flooding in hopes of avoiding worse disasters.
It was an unusual state of affairs in a semiarid region where Mexican and U.S. officials often squabble over rights to scarce water.
Mayor Garza Garcia said 20 floodgates had been opened by late Tuesday at the Venustiano Carranza Dam, which was releasing 600 cubic meters (21,190 cubic feet) per second into the Salado River, a tributary of the Rio Grande.
“It was preferable having controlled flooding than having the whole town disappear,” Garza Garcia said. “The situation is very critical.”
Luis Lobo, who drove 16 people from Ciudad Anahuac to Nuevo Laredo, said hundreds of people from Ciudad Anahuac and nearby villages left by foot and were by the side of the road.
“They are out in the open. Men, women, and children with nothing to eat,” Lobo said after arriving in Nuevo Laredo.
Garza Garcia said soldiers planned to take food to those stranded.
Sally Spener, public affairs officer for the binational Water Commission that operates the Amistad Dam, said the agency had tried to limit releases “so that we would not exacerbate the flooding.”
In Laredo, city spokeswoman Xochitl Mora said Bridge One was closed as a precaution ahead of the expected crest on Thursday. The water is expected to rise to 38.5 feet (11.7 meters)— high enough to touch but not run over the bridge.
Officials will remove the heavy steel shade canopies to ease the weight on Bridge One before the heaviest water pressure comes with the river crest, she said. About 11,000 pedestrians and 13,000 vehicles use the bridge daily.
Officials were also evacuating 2,000 people near the swollen Rio Escondido, said Piedras Negras Mayor Jose Manuel Maldonado.
And in Texas authorities evacuated the Vega Verde neighborhood of Del Rio was evacuated as more water was being released from the Amistad Lake, just upstream.
One of three international bridges connecting Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, was ordered closed as the Rio Grande rose dramatically. The water is expected to rise to 38.5 feet — high enough to touch but not run over the bridge.
The other two Laredo bridges, including the heavily used World Trade Bridge, are expected to remain open.
Hurricane Alex dumped heavy rains on the region last week, causing flooding that killed at least 12 people in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, where Ciudad Anahuac is located, and leaving some 130,000 without water service.
The U.S. National Weather Service said a new storm was likely to make its way across the Gulf of Mexico and hit the region within a day or two.
Associated Press Writers Michelle Roberts in San Antonio, Texas, and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.